Neocons Investigate Themselves

President George W. Bush's choice to co-chair his commission to investigate intelligence failures prior to the Iraq war is a long-time, rightwing political activist closely tied to the neoconservative network that led the pro-war propaganda campaign.

Federal appeals court judge Laurence Silberman, who will chair the panel with former Virginia Democratic Senator Charles Robb, also has some history in covert operations. In 1980, when he served as part of former Republican president Ronald Reagan's senior campaign staff, he played a key role in setting up secret contacts between the Reagan-Bush campaign and the Islamic government in Tehran, as part of what became known as the "October Surprise" controversy. Rewarded with his appeals court judgeship several years later, Silberman helped advise rightwing activists during the '90s on strategies to pursue allegations of sexual misconduct by then-Democratic president Bill Clinton.

Besides Silberman and Robb, a conservative Democrat who also has strong ties to neoconservatives through the Democratic Leadership Council, Bush chose five other commission members, while indicating that two more have yet to be named. The five include Arizona Republican Senator John McCain; former White House counsel for Clinton and former president Jimmy Carter, Lloyd Cutler; Yale University President Richard Levin; former deputy Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, Admiral William Studeman and retired appeals court judge Pat Wald.

In unilaterally determining the composition of the panel, Bush rejected appeals by the opposition Democrats in Congress that they be given a role in picking its members and therefore enhance its credibility. The appointment of both Silberman and Wald to the commission is seen as particularly curious, because they are known not to get along. In his controversial book, "Blinded by the Right," former right-wing journalist David Brock claims that Silberman who hates Wald "with a passion" gave "false information" to him about the judge.

Brock depicts Silberman as a major, if discreet, figure in the right-wing network that harassed Bill and Hillary Clinton for various alleged scandals during the 1990s. Brock, who describes Silberman as his "mentor," has since admitted that many of his attacks on Democrats were based on little or no evidence. "A consummate Washington insider for more than two decades," Brock wrote, "Larry would often preface his advice to me with the wry demurrer that judges shouldn't get involved in politics -- 'that would be improper,' he'd say -- and then go ahead anyway."

"He was a behind-the-scenes adviser to the conservative editors of the 'Wall Street Journal' editorial page, and he delighted his conservative audiences with his acid critiques of the liberal press," added Brock.

Silberman has also reportedly been known as aggressive and sometimes abusive, even in his written opinions. He once accused Clinton of "declaring war on the United States" by permitting his aides to attack Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater case, while, during an argument with another appeals court judge, he is reported to have said, "if you were 10 years younger, I'd be tempted to punch you in the nose."

But it is his role in the 1980 election that is perhaps most intriguing about Silberman. He is alleged to have set up and participated in a mysterious meeting in Washington on Oct. 2, 1980 -- one month before the election -- with Reagan's top foreign policy adviser, then-Marine Lieutenant Colonel Robert McFarlane (Reagan's national security adviser during the Iran-Contra scandal), and at least one Iranian arms dealer. It was the culmination of a series of secret meetings -- never reported to the U.S. government -- between Reagan campaign officials and Iranians who purported to represent the government of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The precise purpose of those meetings has never been resolved, but one school of thought, propounded most effectively in the '80s by Carter's top National Security Council adviser on Iran, was that the Republican campaign was trying to ensure that Tehran would not make a deal with Carter to release U.S. Embassy hostages who were being held in Iran until after the November elections. In return, Iran would be covertly supplied with U.S.-made weapons via Israeli middlemen, according to the theory.

While Reagan officials, including Silberman, have vehemently denied this version of events, there is enough evidence to suggest that he was a key conduit to Iran during the early '80s. According to one source, after he received his judicial appointment, Silberman passed along his Iranian contacts to Michael Ledeen, a close associate of Richard Perle at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who played a key role with McFarlane in the transfer of U.S. weapons to Tehran in the deal that gave rise to the Iran-Contra scandal.

Several years later, Silberman cast the deciding vote on a three-judge panel in a decision that resulted in dismissing the criminal convictions of Admiral John Poindexter and Lt Col Oliver North for lying to Congress in connection with the scandal.

Apart from Silberman, Bush's appointments did surprise several observers with their ideological diversity and reputations for independence. "Overall, this is a much more professional, much more balanced group than I expected," said Mel Goodman, a former top Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, who has frequently charged the administration with distorting and exaggerating the intelligence on Iraq.

For example, John McCain as a Republican senator has often taken neo-conservative positions, but was also Bush's rival in the 2000 Republican primary elections and has frequently clashed with him on key issues.

During his tenure at the CIA, William Studeman was well respected among analysts. In contrast to a number of other senior officials, Goodman describes him as "an honest man," whose public charges that former CIA chief Robert Gates had slanted assessments of Soviet power and intentions in the late 1980s created a sensation in Washington. "It looks like the pragmatists in the White House must have said, 'it's important that we get good names, so we're not attacked,"' added Goodman, who teaches at the National War College. He said much will now depend on who is appointed as the panel's staff director.

Cutler, a top adviser to both Carter and Clinton, has enjoyed a strong reputation for independence and thoughtfulness over several decades, while Wald, who was appointed to the bench by Carter, is considered a strong-willed liberal Democrat, who after retirement served as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Whatever the composition of the panel, the president appears to have limited its mandate to study only the mistakes made by the intelligence community in assessing Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. "Last week, our former chief weapons inspector, David Kay ... stated that some pre-war intelligence assessments by America and other nations about Iraq's weapons stockpiles have not been confirmed," Bush said. "We are determined to find out why."

Democrats criticized Bush for sidestepping the more important questions about the war. "The president is not allowing (the commission) to look into the growing number of questions millions of Americans are asking about the administration's statements and actions before the Iraq war," said Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "That investigation still needs to be done." Democrats have charged that political pressure from leading administration figures, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, contributed to the intelligence failures, as did officials' public exaggerations of the intelligence community's assessments in order to persuade the public to support the war.

Democrats and other analysts had also wanted the commission to take up the administration's pre-war charges that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein worked closely with the al Qaeda terrorist group. "The independent commission ... should seize upon its mandate to investigate 'related 21st century threats' and the biggest failure in the justification for the Iraq war: unproven allegations of links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," said Charles Pena, a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has strongly opposed the Iraq war, despite its Republican orientation.

But perhaps the most important indication of the politics behind the commission is its deadline: The panel is slated to submit its report by Mar. 31, 2005, well after the presidential elections in November.

Jim Lobe writes on U.S. foreign policy for AlterNet, TomPaine.com, Foreign Policy in Focus.

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